America is built on both laws and democratic norms. While laws are officially passed and recorded, our democratic norms are more impalpable and harder to codify. However, they are just as crucial to our democracy and to public discourse. Yet, in often unconventional ways, we see administrations strive to shift America’s norms, testing the boundaries of what the public will accept under the guise of achieving progress. Our current president has provided quite appropriate examples, recently threatening to shut down the government due to lack of a border security package and proposing the retaliatory action of revoking the security clearances of select high ranking intelligence officials.

The precedent these actions would set, should they be carried out, have many repercussions; over past decades, the American presidency has become ever more emboldened to publicly foster a culture expectant of unquestioned loyalty. Yet, in the long line of other divisive actions by this administration — i.e. the Mueller investigation, trade war, unexpected foreign affair developments, to name a few — how much attention do these threats of action deserve? With the old adage of “there being bigger fish to fry,” should we consider shifting these proposed actions to the back burner?

Let us hope we are not at that point. The proposed retaliatory actions and threats of denying funding for the government are only the latest test of a president playing the line of what is legal versus what is right — a difference that is fundamental to the character of American politics. Legally, the president is within his rights to revoke security clearances, as this article aptly describes. Additionally, the Office of the President houses the pen for the final signature on a budget package, should it be deemed appropriate to use. But legality is not the final test of cultural acceptance. For that distinction it is not solely to the law that we must look for justification of a president’s actions, but also to our nation’s norms.

When considered in concert with other actions of this administration and the many prior, a theme arises: the non-codified norms or standards of conduct upon which America’s democracy has relied are being stretched, torn, and depressed.

Our nation’s press, cloaked daily with the untrusting aftertaste of the fake news phenomenon and working to combat the fact-less based options spread on social media, has been in the throes of fighting for its dignity as one of our nation’s greatest tools of government oversight. America has relied on the press as a viable, institutional check on political power, not simply a propaganda tool or an echo chamber of opinions. The norm of a free press must be re-established.

Our nation’s judicial system — now much more commonly discussed than in previous years — has become a nest of controversy, doubt, and polarization. The Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and additional parties that participate in federal investigations must remain independent. The process must be apolitical and must reject outcome-based views of justice. This norm, which is under threat, must be retained.

Congress, America’s first branch of government, has traded in its legislative productivity for irrational levels of partisanship, election focused party-politics, and inappropriate deference to the executive branch. The House and Senate’s powers of oversight, legislative capacity, and resources need to be revived. A strong executive is not the sign of a weak legislature. However, a weak legislative cannot ensure that a powerful executive operates within its legal, ethical and statutory bounds. Today the checks on power are not properly functioning and there is not a proper balance. Congress, as an institution, must be revived.

As similar discussion points multiply over the coming days, months, and election cycles, the long-term consequences of these actions must not be overlooked. Nor should they be taken out of the context of past administrations. These proposed administrative actions, and others that have provoked questions of legality, cronyism, controversy, and constitutionality, should be considered with strict scrutiny to identify the precedents set for presidents to come. America’s next chapter will be defined by which norms are established, which are remade, and which are retained. Like its code of law, America’s political cannon of these standards is ever evolving and upon considering the government we have, it is important to remember Benjamin Franklin’s answer, given 231 years ago, upon the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

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